Exhaustion fogs my mind as rain patters down against the door to my AirBnB. I listen to it as long as I can then close my eyes, thankful that I'm warm, that my hiking shoes have finally been discarded at the entryway, and, of course, that my overflowing Osprey backpack dries by the fire place. At the kitchen counter, my host puts together a midnight snack with sweet potato and honey. He sets the dish in front of me, and we look again at the map that we had, at least two hours ago, smoothed out on the table.
"My ancestors came from this area," he says, pointing to the west then plowing through an abbreviated few centuries of Korean history--and his own modern-day life pursuing green-energy hospitality. The sleep that had been drying my eyes and nodding my head stops for just enough of a second to ask another question that spirals into another, and another.
My host answers them all. I apologize for my stream of thoughts, but he counters by asking me questions about American culture, about what brought me to South Korea. I lean back, eat a little more sweet potato, then tell him as much as I can, lulled by both rain and good company.
South Korea's Islands
While Korea's autumn weather is quickly spiraling into winter, I find myself planning and pinning down maps with every island I hear about. I guess that's what happens when you live on the coast.
Before arriving in August, I really only knew of Jeju, Korea's largest and most famous of its 3,358 islands dotted along the peninsula. Most everyone has heard about the Korean mountain hike craze--and it'd even been part of the reason why I came here!--but for some reason I hadn't heard half as much about it's islands. Island that, might add, boast some of the highest peaks and most stunning botanical gardens. Lonely Planet even has a Korean island hopping guide, and they're right to start by saying that travelers overlook the country's seaside getaways in favor of sprawling Seoul adventures.
To be fair, one of the only reasons I'd heard of Geoje had been because of my own job search just a few months ago. Fast forward now to the end of September:
As Chuseok vacation loomed closer and closer, most of my time had been preoccupied with ARC applications and sim cards and the fact that banks close-shop around 4:30pm. I didn't have the moment to even begin planning a big hiking trip like I had originally wanted, let alone figure out who would come with me on a flight to Jeju. My friends encouraged me to join in on a temple stay, while other groups asked if they'd see me in Seoul.
But after seeing city, city, and more city for two months straight, I was ready for a farmstead escape. I wanted foliage and hiking and roughing it out in the rice fields. I told everyone back in the heat of August that I was waiting for autumn hikes. Finally, I was a week away from a five-day break but I couldn't figure out where the heck I could go.
Until I remembered Geoje.
Until I read about over thirty islands I absolutely had to visit.
Until I wanted to cross them off my list, starting with an hour long bus ride out of Busan and a massive bridge.
Within a day, I'd booked an AirBnB, dug out my backpacking bag, and checked the south coast weather. It was no trip to Jirisan National Park, but everything weighed a little lighter with my knowing that I'd at least dust the dirt from my hiking shoes...
My Three (And A Half?) Day Itinerary
I was lacing up my hiking shoes when my host asked if I knew the path. Other guests had gone, but I was straggling with a latter start time. Glancing at Kakao Map (word of warning: Google isn't a thing here), I shrugged. My host grabbed a water bottle and his own hiking shoes as well.
Guksabong Mountain clocks in at around 464 meters and actually has two peaks. Along the way, we passed silent forests with burial grounds nestled between trees, weeds all cleared away with Chuseok so close. My host told me more about Chuseok itself--the traditions I couldn't so easily see as both an outsider and an American who is used to the commercialism of our holiday decorations and ads. Of course Chuseok's got its gifts and a mad-rush exodus, but most of what I was told concerned food, things like rice cakes and 전 (Korean "pancakes," according to my students), or ancestors, visiting the family grave and receiving tokens from your grandparents.
After we arrived back, my host offered to show Windy Hill and Sinseondae Cliff. While both locations were beautiful, I much preferred Sinseondae and had even kicked off my shoes to relax in the sunset. Finally, we rounded off the day getting some of the best Korean-style Chinese soup I've ever had.
Sunday I was switching hostels and had planned to continue hiking--Mt. Gyeryong that evening and Mt. Noja the next morning. Unfortunately, I began to feel pretty sick. I blame Friday night's rain. My throat constricted with pin-pricks every time I swallowed, so I--reluctantly--decided to skip out on the rest of my hiking.
Instead, I spent the afternoon at Gujora Beach both burrowing myself in the warm sand and scrambling over boulders to catch my view of islands along the horizon. When I finally felt like I could eat again, I headed to a nearby Botany Cafe for a nutritious meal.
(The cheesecake was delicious.)
Finally, I made my way to Hakdong village, strolled along the Black Pebble Beach, and checked into my AirBnB where I crashed to sleep.
My Monday morning hike had been replaced with a Monday morning stroll. Although I felt sick, I didn't want to waste the last of my time in Geoje sitting around my AirBnB.
Stomach armed with ramen for breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed outside into the overcast day. When I'd gotten my fill of photographing this sleepy little town, I wandered into a cafe and called a cousin. A few hours later, when my body demanded I rest for real, I took a bus back to the main station and waited for the next intercity bus to Busan.
Points of Interest
I'm so relieved Geoje's just an hour out from Busan because there'd been so much left I still wanted to see!
Of Pictures and Fun Facts...
From guides to rants.